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Moderate Exercise May Slow Pre-Alzheimer’s Mental Decline

Aerobic exercise improves symptoms of mild cognitive impairment, a precursor to Alzheimer's disease or dementia.

Aerobic exercise may help rejuvenate the aging brain. That’s the message from two recent studies on the relationship between exercise and the mild memory problems that are often a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

Researchers at Seattle’s University of Washington School of Medicine and the Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System looked at 33 older adults who already showed some signs of memory problems—also called mild cognitive impairment (MCI). The men and women, whose average age was 70, were divided into two groups: Twenty-three of them engaged in aerobic exercise for 45 to 60 minutes a day four days a week, while the rest did stretching exercises.

After six months, both groups were given physical and mental tests. The findings: Aerobic exercise stalled the progress of symptoms. Lead author Laura Baker says brain function in the aerobic exercise group actually improved.

In a second study, Yonas E. Geda, M.D., and his colleagues at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., randomly selected 1,324 participants ages 70 to 90, who were assessed by a panel of experts to determine whether they had mild cognitive impairment. The majority (1,126) did not show any signs of brain problems; the rest did. Then the study subjects were asked to recall the intensity and frequency of their physical exercise over the past year and also between ages 50 and 65. “Those who had participated in even moderate exercise in midlife were almost 40 percent less likely to have MCI than those that did not,” says Geda, adding that those who exercised in late life were 32 percent less likely to have memory problems.

“Together the studies suggest that physical exercise may play a role in slowing the cognitive decline associated with MCI,” says Jeffrey M. Burns, M.D., director of the Alzheimer and Memory Program at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. “But there remains a need for large randomized controlled trials to further define the role of exercise both as a prevention strategy and as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.”

Both studies appeared in the January issue of Archives of Neurology.

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People with mild cognitive impairment often have problems with memory or language, but the problems aren’t severe enough to interfere with everyday life. The condition affects about 20 percent of people over 70, according to the American College of Physicians. Not everyone with the disorder eventually develops dementia—some remain stable and others improve.

Cathie Gandel is a freelance writer based in Bridgehampton, N.Y.

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